TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your sovereign purpose brings salvation to birth. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I can’t fault the disciples for wanting to find meaning in the destruction of the temple-or in wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Knowing why things happen makes an out-of-control world seem just a little less out of control. I think that is what conspiracy theories are all about. They make sense out of the senseless. People for whom the world is changing too fast, people who fear losing the America they once knew, people who feel powerless before a tidal wave of novelty they can’t stop-they take comfort in having a reason-any reason-for what is happening to them. “It’s the damn liberal media,” “it’s all those illegals coming in and taking our jobs,” “it’s the gay agenda,” “it’s the war against Christianity,” or “it’s that Obamacare.” It is comforting to put a face on the faceless terror that haunts me. I would rather believe that someone is out to get me than to believe in a soulless universe that doesn’t care what happens to me and that I am not important enough for anyone to bother persecuting. It is unbearable to think that my own suffering or that of the rest of the world has no point. I think that is why, contrary to Jesus’ explicit warnings, we are led astray in every generation by preachers who claim to know what Jesus himself did not know-namely, the time for the end of all things. That is why we are prone to fall for advertisements from financial experts who claim to know what the market will do in the future. It is why presidential hopefuls with simple explanations for what is wrong with our country and easy solutions that cost us nothing always find a ready audience. We want to believe that it all makes sense. “The truth is out there…”
There is a part of me that yearns to believe at least some of this. I would like to know what direction the future will take. That might give me a measure of control over my life. But Jesus makes it quite clear that such knowledge is beyond us. The only sense to be made of the universe is the sense God makes of it. That is why Jesus concludes his remarks about the destruction of the temple with one simple world: “watch.” Mark 13:37. (or, “stay awake” as the NRSV renders it.) Of course, the one we are called upon to watch is Jesus-not the geopolitical forces that will soon level Jerusalem and the Temple. In the very next chapter, we learn that, notwithstanding three additional reminders, Jesus’ disciples did not stay awake, but fell asleep at their posts in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark 14:32-42. They slept through and fled from the one thing that could have made sense of their world, namely, the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
It is perhaps for this reason that our ancient liturgical practices finally evolved what we have come to know as the “church year.” We have learned that Jesus is the sense God makes of our lives. As this church year draws to a close next Sunday, we are reminded once again that, whenever the end comes, that end will be Jesus. When the new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, we will be reminded that the universe was, as Paul says, created in hope. God’s hope for the universe unfolds in the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. The way ahead lies in following Jesus as he lives God’s future kingdom now, a life that always takes the shape of the cross in a sinful world. The direction of obedience is loving our neighbor as though there were no class distinctions, national borders, racial divides or cultural hostilities-regardless whether that is effective, practical or pleasant. Whenever the kingdom comes in its fullness, we pray that God will have shaped us into the kind of people who can live in it joyfully, peacefully and obediently. Where we stand between beginning and end, hope and thanksgiving, promise and the fulfilment is anybody’s guess. But that we so stand is sure. For now, that is enough.
There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 175-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctive Jewish practices. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.
The early chapters of the Book of Daniel (Daniel 1-6) tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. This and other stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar are retold in the new context of Syro-Greek tyranny. They bring comfort and encouragement for Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.”
The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about Twenty-First Century events and when the world will end. Such concerns, however, were far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day. Whatever else biblical apocalyptic may have to say, it is overwhelmingly hopeful, expressing confident faith in God’s promise to abide with his chosen people, save them from destruction and lead them into a radically renewed creation.
Our text for this Sunday comes at the conclusion of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions and constitutes about the only specific mention of the resurrection of the dead found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The author promises that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever.” Vs. 4. The “wise” are those who remain faithful to their God and refuse to submit to Antiochus’ demands to abandon their faith. They will shine eternally just as they shone in their faithful martyrdom. Some folks will awake from death to face everlasting shame. Vs. 2. These are the ones who have given in to Antiochus and betrayed their faith. This punishment of everlasting shame for the unfaithful should not to be understood as hellfire or damnation. It is rather the shame of discovering that their lives have been lived on the wrong side of history. They cannot shine in the resurrection because they chose not to shine when they had the opportunity in life to bear witness to their God. Their punishment is having to live forever with the knowledge that in seeking to save their lives at the cost of their faith, they have wasted them. Perhaps that is even worse than hellfire.
The fiery ordeal faced by the authors of Daniel and of Revelation is hard for most of us to imagine. I expect that our Christian sisters and brothers in Syria, Egypt and Iraq can relate to these texts far better than us. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that American disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. In a culture where outright lies are camouflaged as “negative campaigning,” “editorial opinion” and “advertising puffery,” truthful speech is often unwelcome. It takes courage to be the only one to come to the defense of a person under group criticism. It requires uncommon (though not unheard of) valor for a high school student to take the risk of befriending the kid everyone else picks on. Even in a culture where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, strictly speaking, following Jesus still means taking up the cross.
The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile efforts at changing a stubbornly wicked world. Lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus’ sake will not have been wasted. Neither will be the dollars contributed to this good work. But what of the times we have buckled under social pressure? What of the many times we have denied Jesus? The evil we have done and the good we have left undone cannot simply be erased from history. How can I live in the resurrection kingdom with those I have wounded, ignored or failed to help? Will not a kingdom shaped by the Sermon on the Mount be an eternal reminder of my failures?
I am not sure Daniel can give us much help here, but Jesus surely can. We are spiritual descendants of the disciples who misunderstood Jesus, betrayed him, denied him and deserted him, leaving him to die alone. Yet when Jesus returns from death and finds these cowardly disciples hiding behind locked doors, he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” John 20:21. In other words, “get out there and shine!” In Jesus we discover the God of the second chance-and the third and the fourth.
Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. See Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 172. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm, but the psalmist makes clear that they have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts. The psalmist opens his prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. Vs. 1-2.
“As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.” Vs. 3. The Hebrew is a little choppy at this verse. One English translation renders the verse “The gods whom earth holds sacred are all worthless and cursed are all who make them their delight.” (New English Bible). The authors arrive at this contrary meaning by translating the term “zakik” as “gods” rather than “saints.” This translation is suspect, however, given the frequent use of the term to describe the “upright,” the “holy ones” and the “faithful.” Thus, most commentators agree that the term is being used to designate faithful worshipers of Israel’s God as distinguished from those who practice idolatry. While this declaration fits well into the faithful piety of Jews suffering under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes described above, it would be equally at home among Israelites struggling to remain faithful to Israel’s God under the pressure of Canaanite cultural influences. Thus, it is difficult, if not impossible, to date the psalm or this fragment of it with much certainty. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 66.
The psalmist has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death. Vs. 13. It is important to note, however, that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith (See discussion of the lesson from Daniel above). Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
I have written at length in the last three posts about my take on Hebrews. I will not do so again here, but wish to call attention to what I believe is the practical takeaway: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Vss. 24-25. This is why we go to church. Being a disciple of Jesus is not a private matter. Compassion, generosity, hospitality and courageous witness do not come naturally. We need to be “provoked” to these acts. The preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ is just such a provocation. When we fully comprehend the generosity God has shown to us, we discover a newfound ability to be generous with one another. But generosity cannot be exercised in a vacuum. You need someone to be generous toward. You need people to forgive and people who can point out to you the sin you often fail to see in yourself-and forgive it. All this talk we have heard the last couple of weeks about Jesus being the final sacrifice for us; the only priest we will ever need and the temple wherein God’s saving presence can be experienced-it all boils down to this: go to church.
Now some might object to that as overly simplistic. Church after all is not a place we go, but a people we are called to be. True enough. Still, in order to be that people of Jesus, you need to meet together. You need to be in the presence of one another, serving one another, speaking the truth to one another in love and encouraging one another. You cannot be the church without going to church. If you continue in the book of Hebrews, you will note that chapter 11 constitutes a roll call of saints who have given their all for the Kingdom of God. The point? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is before us…” Hebrews 12:1. This is all about encouragement. We all need that! We need to be reminded that we are not alone. We are walking a path well worn by the saints from Abraham and Sarah to the Apostle Paul. We are encouraged by their witness and supported by the prayers of a worshiping community that is there for us every week. Whether we are singing hymns, drinking coffee or standing side by side dishing up food for the homeless the Spirit is at work building the bonds that will hold us together on the day when all things are made new. So don’t neglect to meet together! Your presence with us on Sunday is more important than you know!
If you read my post of Sunday, November 8, 2015, you already know my take on this passage and that it relates back to the story of the widow’s “offering” for the temple treasury. Jesus speaks an uncompromising word of judgment upon the temple and its corrupt and corrupting practices. It is tempting to identify overly much with Jesus, as though, of course, had we been there we would have all been nodding in agreement. But for all pious Jews-which Jesus and his disciples all were-the temple was a precious gift of God. According to the scriptures, God “caused his name to dwell” upon the temple in Jerusalem. It was the symbol of God’s gracious presence for the people Israel. Upon dedicating the first temple, King Solomon prayed: “I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell forever.” I Kings 8:29. Understandably, then, Israel treated the temple with great awe and reverence. The prophet Jeremiah was put into the stocks over night and beaten for suggesting that God might allow the temple to be destroyed. One of the charges against Jesus at his trial was a claim that he had threatened the temple with destruction. An attack on the temple was viewed as an attack on Israel’s God.
Yet Solomon also uttered these cautionary words: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” I Kings 8:27. God in God’s love for Israel chooses to dwell in the temple she has made. But God will not be confined there. Neither the temple nor its elaborate worship can be used to manipulate God. Nor are maintenance of a building and adherence to ritual substitutes for faithfulness to the commandment of love for God above all else and for one’s neighbor as one’s self. The temple is God’s gift to Israel, not Israel’s handle on God. What God gives, God can and will take away when it becomes a substitute for faithfulness and obedience.
As I have said many times before, it seems to me that we are facing a time of transition for the church. The demographics indicate that we protestants on the East Coast will soon be a much smaller, much poorer church in terms of numbers and dollars. For many of us who have become accustomed to doing church in a particular way, that is about as threatening as the destruction of the temple for Jesus’ contemporaries. I think that for many folks, a church without real estate holdings and sanctuaries, a church without a national office and a host of agencies, service organizations and professional leaders, a church without a nationwide network of bishops, seminaries and professional clergy is simply not church. We think we need all of this to be church, but that surely is not what God needs and may not even be what God desires. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the edifice we call the ELCA will be reduced to rubble so that not one stone of it will be left upon another.
OK. Before you jump all over me, let me confess that I do not know this to be the case. Perhaps God plans to renew protestant churches in the United States. Perhaps we will see people flowing back through our doors and the ELCA as we know it will experience a robust institutional future. God does not consult with me on these matters. Consequently, I did not preface any of this with “Thus saith the Lord.” But here is what I do know: It takes only a couple people, the Bible, some water and a little bread with wine to make a church. That is all. Of course, it is preferable to have a roof over your head when you meet. Seminaries producing learned preachers and teachers are great to have. Leadership and accountability for congregations is important, too. Large scale ministries addressing hunger, injustice and environmental concerns are swell, if you can support them. I do not suggest for one moment that churches should impoverish themselves. All the extras I have mentioned are gifts to be received with thanksgiving. But for all the wonderful things they accomplish, they are extras. We can lose them all and still be the church. The greatest danger for us lies in our believing that the extras are essential. When that happens, we cease to be the church and become simply a social service agency at best and a panicked dying corporation at worst. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a social service agency and corporations are not inherently evil. But either or both together is still far, far less than the embodiment of God’s reign to which Jesus calls us.
The destruction of the temple turned out to be good news. The church was forced to rethink its mission and articulate in new ways its faith in Jesus’ coming in glory. A new and vibrant Judaism rooted in synagogue worship and the internalization of Torah emerged following Rome’s invasion of Jerusalem. What seemed then to be the death throes of an ancient hope for salvation turned out to be the birth pangs of a new age. So I believe this passage from the Gospel of Mark is a message of hope for believers in every age. In the midst of “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, famines and hurricanes, and the end of a lot of what we know and love, God is doing a new thing.